Ambien (zolpidem) is a powerful hypnotic drug used specifically to treat moderate to severe cases of insomnia. It has a similar action within the brain as drugs of the benzodiazepin class by binding to the GABA-A receptors in much the same way that benzodiazepins do. Combining Ambien with other psychoactive substances is generally discouraged as it can result in unpleasant and potentially harmful side effects. Ambien should never be combined with other substances that are known to cause CNS depression as Ambien is synergistic with these kinds of drugs. The combination of Ambien with a CNS depressant can result in severe respiratory depression which can lead to a coma and in some cases death. One such CNS depressant that is often combined purposefully or by accident with Ambien is Alcohol. This combination is extremely dangerous and should be avoided.
Alcohols mechanism of action
In order to properly understand the dangers of combing alcohol and Ambien it is important to understand alcohol's specific mechanism of action and how it interacts with Ambien's mechanism of action. Alcohol works in much the same way that medications like Ambien and benzodiazepins do. Alcohol binds to the GABA-A receptor causing the chemical GABA to become more effective in its action within the brain. GABA is the chemical responsible for promoting the euphoria and sedation associated with alcohol and other drugs that effect its potency.
Combining alcohol with Ambien leads to such severe side effects as both are active on the same receptors and actually potentiate each other. Alcohol manages to increase the effects of Ambien by further promoting and intensifying Ambien's effects on the GABA-A receptor. For this reason combining Alcohol and Ambien can result in effects much stronger than typical of the dosage of Ambien taken or Alcohol consumed. Alcohol further intensifies Ambien by causing it to be eliminated from the body at a slower rate. Since Alcohol is also occupying some of the GABA-A receptors it takes longer for all of the Ambien to be used up by the body resulting in a longer amount of time that the effects are felt.
Alcohol and Ambien side effects
The most common side effect experienced when combining alcohol and Ambien (zolpidem) is vomiting. Alcohol by itself causes vomiting in many when consumed in large quantities. Being combined with Ambien, a medication already known to cause nausea and vomiting, just leads to a more probable situation where the user will be vomiting. The more severe side effects experienced when combining alcohol and Ambien are similar to those experienced when overdosing on either substance. The most dangerous result of combing alcohol and Ambien is respiratory depression resulting in death. The severity of respiratory depression is dependent primarily on the amount of alcohol consumed and the amount of Ambien taken. When taken together Ambien (zolpidem) and alcohol will result in a worse hangover the next day as well.
A bad combination
After seeing the possible side effects and how alcohol and Ambien interact within the brain it is easy to see why it is recommended to never combine the two substances. Even small amounts of alcohol should be avoided while taking Ambien because the effects of combining Ambien and alcohol are unpredictable varying greatly from individual to individual.